The Jacuzzi 12.07.16

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Death, war, family feuds – the story behind the infamous, enticing hot tub has it all, says John Jervis

OK, if you’re after a few quick-fire witticisms about chest wigs, Hugh Hefner and Hot Tub Time Machine – nostalgia and smut, with an affectionate salute to Ferris Bueller thrown in – you’ve come to the wrong place. The story of the Jacuzzi is so much weirder, and richer, than that. It starts with seven eponymous brothers who migrated to California from north-east Italy, escaping the destruction and military service brought by the First World War. There they dabbled in orange picking and copper mining, but it was the troubled genius of the eldest, Rachele, together with the new markets created by the war, that forged their road to riches.

Rachele’s first invention, ‘the Jacuzzi toothpick’, was a laminated propeller so effective it gained contracts from American and Russian airforces. Orders slowed when the war ended, so he went the whole hog, developing the Reo, the world’s first monoplane with a large, enclosed cabin. Aimed at the new United States Air Mail, it crashed on a test flight, killing four, including one of the brothers.

The Reo patents were sold, but other ideas followed, such as ‘Frostifugo’, which blew warm air across orange groves to keep frost away. But it was Rachele’s ‘Jacuzzi Jet Injector Pump’ that hit pay dirt. Using technology adapted from heat exchangers in plane engines, water was injected into the ground at pressure, creating a vacuum to pump water up from depth. Coinciding with the explosion of agriculture in San Joaquin Valley, demand was brisk, but Rachele sunk into depression, publishing fanciful schemes for solar-powered generators, vertical lift-off planes and even a proto-United Nations with fascistic overtones. All fell on deaf ears, and he died unexpectedly in 1937.

Candido, the youngest brother, came to the fore, but his transformation of the business came from an unexpected moment of inspiration. To ease the systemic arthritis of his young son, he created a homemade spa in 1949 by adding an air intake to an agricultural pump, reversing the flow, then plunging it into a bathtub. This portable contraption attracted attention from the medical staff tending his son, and went on to receive its first patent three years later.

On reaching the market, the ‘Jacuzzi Whirlpool Bath’ met with some success, helped by regular appearances as a prize on quiz shows, but only became a world-conquering business after it was incorporated into a moulded bath with multiple seats in the late 1960s. The surge of demand for this ‘Whirlpool Spa’ quickly tore the extended, ill-prepared family firm apart. Both name and business were sold off in 1979 to a fire-extinguisher company, and acrimonious legal battles followed – lawyers continue to circle the Jacuzzi legacy to this day, putting an end to this retelling of the family’s story.

Yet the market for spas – indoors and out – went from strength to strength as materials and technology improved. The Jacuzzi seemed impossibly desirable in 1980s Britain, its name a shorthand for an entire industry. Today, sadly, they’ve become a byword for depravity and bad taste, along with avocado bathrooms, fake tan, blonde perms and pampas grass. But I cling to my memories of the ageing Roger Moore massaging Fiona Fullerton’s shoulders to Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet overture in a steaming hot tub for 1985’s A View to a Kill. Is it possible we’ve lost a certain something in our ceaseless, censorious pursuit of sophistication?



John Jervis


Above: More than just ‘bubbles and a place to serve friends wine’, claims a 1979 ad for Jacuzzi

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The Jacuzzi seemed impossibly desirable in 1980s Britain, its name a shorthand for an entire industry

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